UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: LUDOGORETS 2: ARSENAL 3 GUNNERS BOOK PLACE IN ROUND 2 IN STYLE
On their first visit to a place where a shake of the head means yes, perhaps Arsenal can be forgiven the outbreak of confusion which produced a most unexpected European nail-biter.
Arsene Wenger’s team found themselves two down inside a quarter of an hour on a bitterly cold night in the Bulgarian capital against a team they beat 6-0 just weeks earlier. Football, eh?
Without his first-choice full-backs, Wenger watched a defensive chaos engulf his team, the sort he must have dared to think had been eradicated by some solid summer signings.
It sounded a warning that such deficiencies still lurk. Fortunately for the Frenchman, his team remain ever potent and imaginative in attack and Ludogorets proved again to have their own inherent problems at the back.
Granit Xhaka and Olivier Giroud had them level by half time and just as they seemed set to drop two precious points, Mesut Ozil delivered one of the most delectable goals you are likely to ever see.
The game was in its 87th minute when Ozil was released by Mohamed Elneny and delicately lobbed the ball over the goalkeeper, collected it on the other side of him and dummied and shimmied his way past two defenders before he gently caressed it into an empty net.
‘Great players make the right decision in the game situations they face, they take the optimum solution,’ smiled Wenger, before confessing he feared the German had blown the opportunity.
‘To me, it didn’t look like the optimum solution. You wanted him to take the chance earlier. But he had enough skill to prove he was right. When the ball was in the back of the net, it was clear it had been the optimum solution.’
Victory clinches a place in the last 16 for Arsenal for the 17th successive year.
They top Group A ahead of Paris Saint-Germain and will win it if they beat the French champions at the Emirates in three weeks.
‘The most difficult thing in life is to be consistent at the top level,’ said Wenger. ‘So it shows we have been consistent. Hopefully we can go further now. We are in a position to finish top of the group.’
The exhilarating manner of Ozil’s late winner means spirits are soaring ahead of Sunday’s derby against Tottenham.
Arsenal opened with confidence, in Sofia, dominating possession. Aaron Ramsey tried an overhead kick and Ozil was denied by goalkeeper Milan Borjan.
Despite all the post-match claims that they knew it would not be easy, maybe it all seemed a little too comfortable, because as soon as they were asked to defend, they went behind.
Wanderson delivered a long, deep free-kick from wide on the Ludogorets right which reached Jonathan Cafu, who escaped Shkodran Mustafi to tap it past David Ospina from close range. The home crowd stirred.
They arrived in good numbers, despite the tie being held a six-hour drive from Razgrad, where the team are based. But they did not arrive in great expectation.
And yet only three more minutes had elapsed when the lead doubled.
Again, Arsenal’s resistance was feeble as Wanderson sprayed a pass out to the right and Cafu skipped past Kieran Gibbs.
His near-post cross was converted by Claudiu Keseru and this goal was greeted with a greater roar, as if those braving Sofia’s plunging temperatures might be about to witness one of the great nights.
‘We did not come to produce less effort,’ said Wenger. ‘They are a great team and they maintained the intensity. Ludogorets at the moment don’t know how good they are.’
With a strong Brazilian contingent the Bulgarian champions were quick and nimble. It was at the back where they were not up to scratch and reality levels were reset when Xhaka arrived in a deserted penalty area to pull a goal back for the visitors.
Ozil created it with a run down the left and fine low cross, dug out from tight on the touchline.
Giroud was unable to gather it as he sped towards the near post but it rolled invitingly to Xhaka, who tucked a left-footer into the bottom corner from somewhere near the penalty spot.
All this within the opening 20 minutes.
Ludogorets set about defending their lead and just as they hoped to reach half time, Giroud wiped it out.
Ramsey angled the ball in from the right and Giroud beat ‘keeper Borjan, who dashed six yards from his goal and made it easy for the Arsenal striker to glance a header past him.
Arsenal took control in the second half but the third was elusive and the more men they committed forward the more they creaked at the back. Ospina kept them level with two splendid saves in a matter of minutes from Wanderson.
The clock ticked down and the home crowd were preparing to celebrate when Ozil produced his moment of brilliance.
Those who came to the Vasil Levski national stadium did not see one of the finest results in the history of Bulgarian club football, but they did see a winning goal they will not forget in a hurry.
LUDOGORETS (4-2-3-1): Borjan 6; Minev 6, Palomino 6, Moti 6, Natanael 6; Abel 6, Dyakov 6; Cafu 7, Marcelinho 6.5, Wanderson 7; Keseru 7 (Misidjan 80).
SUBS NOT USED: Stoyanov, Cicinho, Sasha, Quixada, Plastun, Lukoki
GOALS: Cafu 12, Keseru 15
MANAGER: Georgi Dermendzhiev 7
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Ospina 6; Jenkinson 5, Mustafi 5, Koscielny 6, Gibbs 4.5; Coquelin 6, Xhaka 7 (Elneny 87); Ramsey 6 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 75, 6), Ozil 7.5, Sanchez 6 (Iwobi 90); Giroud 6
SUBS NOT USED: Cech, Gabriel, Holding, Maitland-Niles
BOOKED: Coquelin, Xhaka, Jenkinson
GOALS: Xhaka 20, Giroud 41, Ozil 87
MANAGER: Arsene Wenger 6
MAN OF THE MATCH: Mesut Ozil
REFEREE: Bas Nijhuis (NED) 5